Digital info for serious shooters: specializing in Nikon & Canon

Tips on building your own Computer.

With the advent of NEF workflows, 16-bit Photoshop and 6MP and up cameras, computer power has become an increasingly important element in most photographers' workflow. There is little sense in trying to shoehorn your hundreds of 10MB Raw files through that 4 year-old Windows 98 machine if you have a choice. With new PC prices as low as they are, a call or click to Dell will certainly get you up and running on a new box in a day or two. But if you've found that you don't like being stuck with proprietary parts and having to rely on a single vendor's technical support, building your own PC has become an increasingly attractive option.

My apologies in advance to Mac users. Except for the amusement value of laughing at all the silly acronyms PC users have to put up with, there may not be too much in here that will be helpful to you--although some of the technology tradeoffs also apply to the next Mac you buy.

I've built PCs for myself for many years, but have always hesitated to recommend it to anyone else because it is certainly possible to make a complete mess of things. But with excellent resource sites like Extreme Tech, run by PC magazine, and the increasingly well designed components available--plus the plug and play features of Windows XP--building a machine is now not much more difficult than using mail merge in Word as long as you're handy with a screwdriver.

The nitty-gritty of how to build a machine is available online, but you'll have a bunch of questions about what to build and how to configure it. We'll go over some of the most important decisions you need to make in the process and give you some tips on how to make the experience as painless as possible and the resulting computer as useful as possible. NOTE: This is neither a complete set of instructions nor a how-to guide. But this article will help you use those resources as effectively as possible and avoid some common mistakes.

Planning your system: Assuming you already have a keyboard, mouse and monitor that you'll re-use on your new system, you'll need a case with power supply, a motherboard, a CPU, memory, one or more disks and a DVD drive of some type. You may be able to re-use your DVD drive or case, but unless they are quite new you may find you want or need to replace them (newer motherboards require the power configuration of newer power supplies, and newer DVD drives are much faster). Look for bundles which include a motherboard + CPU for the best deals. Expect to spend $50-$100 on the case, $100-$150 on the MB, $100-$200 on the CPU, $75 per 512MB of memory and $100 per 120 Gigabytes of disk. Depending on your MB choice and needs, you may also add a video card ($100-$200) or audio card ($50-$100). We'll go over your options in each of these areas.

CPU: First you need to choose between Intel & AMD. For me it is compatibility vs. price. AMD usually has more power for the money, but Intel Pentiums have less compatibility problems. Personally I've starting only building machines with Intel Pentiums. However, I wouldn't bother with Celerons. They are cut down Pentiums and not worth the bother for the few dollars you save. For speed, the fastest chips have a large price premium which is almost never worth it. Look down the price curve and look for the speed that gives you the most value. Right now that is around a 2.6GHz P4. You can buy your CPU either "bare" or with a cooler. Unless you want to add a fancy aftermarket cooler, just buy the version packaged with the CPU cooler.

Motherboard (MB): There are a slew of motherboards available, most with excellent specs. If you want maximum performance, get one with an 800MHz frontside bus (FSB). Your choice of MB will depend on what features you want. Decide in advance if you need Firewire, USB2, high-speed Ethernet or other features and then make sure you select an MB which has what you need. That's easier and cheaper than adding on cards later. ASUS, First and Intel are all well known and commonly-used brands. Pay attention to the choice of Intel chipset on the MB. The newest Intel chipsets support Hyperthreading (HT) which allows the processor to pipeline multiple instructions at once if the software also supports multi-threading (DigitalPro does, of course:-)

You'll also want to make sure you think about the size of the unit you're building. If it is a mid or full-size tower, then you can use a full size "ATX" form factor MB. This gives you the most options. If you want to build a small system then you may be limited to a micro-ATX form factor, which will limit your options. If you have existing serial or parallel port devices--possibly your tablet or printer--you'll want to make sure you get a motherboard that has enough of those ports as well. Same for your mouse and keyboard. If they are "PS/2" style, make sure your MB has PS/2 style connectors for them.

Disks--To RAID or not to RAID: The great news is that disks are really inexpensive, as long as you don't want the very fastest. 7200RPM Western Digital IDE drives are now as cheap as $100 for 120Gigabytes. They won't blow you away with performance, but they won't break the bank. If you want more speed than that you have three choices. You can either buy expensive 10,000RPM Serial ATA drives, upgrade to the more expensive and faster SCSI disks (10,000 RPM or 15,000 RPM) and a SCSI controller or you use the RAID controller on your MB (if you go this route make sure and buy an MB with an integrated RAID controller) to stripe a pair of disks. Striping (RAID 0) splits the reading and writing across two drives so that you get increased performance. The downside is that if either drive fails you lose all the data on both, so your disks are now half as reliable as before.

If you don't want that reliability issue, you can use 4 drives to mirror (RAID 1) your 2 striped drives onto 2 others. This combination (RAID 0+1, or RAID 10) gives you the best of both worlds but ties up 4 drives and is a royal pain to upgrade later (I know this from experience!). While you're planning your disks remember that Photoshop loves to have two different disks for files and scratch, so you may want to make sure you put two drives in your system.

Memory (RAM): More is better. Windows XP can use up to 4 Gigabytes (GB), although personally I've never bothered to put more than 1GB in a machine since I really don't have huge Photoshop files very often. But with memory prices falling to as low as $150 per Gigabyte feel free to max your system out. Your motherboard will probably allow you to use either 2 or 4 memory modules. In my case, I chose motherboards that support DDR (double data rate) dual-channel RAM. I then purchase a pair of matched 400MHz memory modules (dual channel lets the 2 400MHz RAM modules occupy the full 800MHz front-side bus) in whatever size I can afford.

Video & Audio: Your motherboard probably has an integrated video chipset, but if you're a photographer, you probably want to invest in something better. If you want clean speed on one monitor, the Matrox Milleniums are great products, but only support dual monitors if the monitors are the same resolution. They also don't have an integrated TV capability. If you want TV in a window or the ability to have dual monitors with differing resolutions (nice for using your old monitor as a monitor for your palettes or email) then the ATI Radeon line is pretty compelling. There are tons of other choices, these are just the ones I've used recently. For audio, unless you are mixing your own soundtracks or doing something fancy, the integrated audio chipset is probably fine.

Case & Power Supply: Antec is a good brand, although there are plenty to choose from and some that are quite cute or very fancy. Make sure you get at least a 300w power supply. More if you're planning to add a lot of cards or lots of high-powered disk drives. Larger cases are easier to work inside and fit more drives, but of course are bulkier once you're finished.

DVD/CD Drive: These have been written about plenty. Just make sure you have one. The cadillacs are the Sony DRU-510A and 530A DVD+/-RW drives. The 510A is now available for as little as $159, so there isn't much reason to get anything cheaper if you want a DVD burner. If you really don't want to burn DVDs, then you can get a DVD/CD drive for under $100. I no longer put a Floppy in machines that I build, although I do make sure there is at least one machine around with one for when I need it.

Windows XP: Personally I prefer the Pro edition of XP, but it is more expensive and not really all that different, so the Home edition is normally fine. I've just found that the Pro edition seems to have less problems.

  Where to buy: If you need any kind of hand-holding at all, consider buying from a retail location. Fry's here in California is convenient and at least you can return things right away. Whether they can actually answer your questions though is very much hit or miss. And if they do answer they may or may not have the right information. I don't know whether the chains such as Micro Center in other parts of the country are any better. The most efficient and least expensive way to buy is online. I always price compare using or and then look for a reputable vendor with a fairly low price. Recently I've been buying almost all of my components from either (the re-born Egghead) which has incredibly low prices or from (the online arm of Fry's) which will deliver your goodies practically before you order them.

Getting started: Backup your existing system: The first thing you'll want is a good backup. Since you are changing the hardware on your machine this is a little trickier than usual. You probably will not be restoring the entire drive including the OS and applications, so you'll want to backup your data files. Having another backup of the entire drive for emergencies is of course also a good idea. You can try using one of the many PC migration utilities available, although I've had mixed luck with them. If you are building an all new machine, then you should try and leave your old machine active and networked to the new machine to make it as easy as possible to snag files you might have forgotten. Of course this step would be the same even if you bought a new machine, so it isn't really any worse with your "do it yourself" version.

Keeping Spare Parts: Even if you can't keep your entire current system running, keep the parts. Especially for debugging new hardware it is great to have a known working board or disk you can plug in and try out.

Label everything and keep notes: The worst part of either salvaging part of your existing computer or even setting up the new one is making sure all the cables and jumpers are in the correct position. Keep notes on everything you set or change, and label all your cables including which end faces which direction. Most are keyed so they can't be inserted incorrectly, but not all of them.

Pay attention to your MB manual: Modern motherboards are getting closer to foolproof, but you'll still need to pay some attention to jumper settings in case they are not set at the factory. I built one system recently where the MB came set to "diagnostic" mode. I don't know why they couldn't have reset it before they shipped it, but they didn't and it required setting a jumper before it would work correctly. Double-check which memory slot(s) to use if you are only using some of them and make sure you have a supported memory configuration. Your disk drives may also need jumper setting, but most of them now seem to be happy with auto-detecting what they need.

Assembly on the back of a Napkin: This is not a step-by-step guide, but roughly speaking, you'll need to do the following to assemble your PC: There may be additional steps depending on your components.

  • Assuming your power supply is pre-installed, install the motherboard in the case
  • Install the CPU, cooler and RAM. Make sure you line them up correctly and don't force anything. These are expensive and somewhat fragile parts. Connect the appropriate power connectors from the power supply to the Motherboard. Note that P4 motherboards have a second power connector. Connect the cooler power lead to the motherboard. Hook up your case LED leads to your motherboard.
  • Install your disk drive(s) and DVD drive and cable them to the appropriate drive connectors on the motherboard. With modern motherboards there are usually 4 plain IDE connectors and it doesn't matter all that much what goes where since you can customize their behavior in the BIOS. I tend to put my DVD first and disk next. If you are using the RAID connectors on the MB, then you need to follow those instructions.
  • Install any video or audio cards you'll be using. Attach a keyboard, monitor and mouse.
  • Power it up and make sure it beeps and brings up the BIOS.
  • Make sure your settings, including boot priority, look good in the BIOS. Don't get fancy (yet) with any over-clocking. Save that for much later.
  • Put in your Windows CD and reboot. If all is well you'll be able to start installing Windows and go from there. Once Windows is installed you'll also have some updated drivers for your MB components and video card you'll want to install. Back up your system just in case, and then start restoring your files. Have fun!

Use online resources: Most of your system components will come with sparse or confusing manuals. You'll almost certainly want to augment that scant information with the extensive online information available. Two sites I rely on heavily are Extreme Tech and Tom's Hardware. In addition there are newsgroups and how-to sites with information on specific brands of cases and motherboards. A quick search through Google will help you find experts that have built systems similar to yours and shared the experience.

Busted Stuff? If the machine doesn't beep & get you to the BIOS when you power it up, then either you've got it jumpered wrong, a cable isn't seated correctly, your CPU + MB + RAM isn't a supported configuration, or something is busted. I'd never had a problem like this until recently. Naturally it was when I was building a system with my daughter that we got a bad MB. Frustrating but a good learning experience. In our case we were fortunate enough to have another machine to borrow the Pentium, RAM and disk from so that we could rule them out as the problem. But that is the exception rather than the norm. Newsgroups (Google Groups search) and tech websites are invaluable when this happens, as someone has undoubtedly run into whatever problem you're having.

 TII Computer Deals at Dell Home Systems 120x240 Frightened? If all this sounds a little scary, that's probably okay. Work carefully and don't rush it. Read through the many "how-to" sites on the web. If it all sounds a lot scary, then you should probably stick with Dell or your favorite off the self brand. If it sounds like a learning experience and an adventure--it is. If you have to take a day off your paying work to do it, then it won't save you enough to be worth it. But if you do it instead of watching TV (or while watching TV) some evening or two it'll be a worthwhile tradeoff. At the end you'll have the satisfaction of knowing what's in your machine, a little bit about how it works, and that you have exactly what you want in your new PC.

Whatever you decide, good luck with your new computer, and don't forget to take a break and go out and take some pictures!--David Cardinal

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All contents copyright Pro Shooters LLC. All rights reserved.
Nikon is a trademark of Nikon Corporation. is not affiliated with Nikon Corporation.




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All contents copyright Pro Shooters LLC. All rights reserved.
Nikon is a trademark of Nikon Corporation. is not affiliated with Nikon Corporation.